Atwater has special vision of the outdoors

By Brennan Leathers

Mark Atwater, of Donalsonville, Ga., didn’t start out to be a professional photographer, he just started taking pictures of nature — 30 years later, his photos regularly grace the covers of outdoors magazines.

Atwater’s specialty is photos of hunting retreivers, the  rigorously trained dogs who chase after ducks, quail and other fowl.

Atwater, now 52, began taking pictures with a film camera while a graduate student in plant sciences at Purdue University. His professor encouraged him to take photos for use in class presentations. After completing his master’s degree, he took thousands of slides as part of field research for a chemical company that developed herbicides and pesticides.

In 1993, Atwater started his own business, Weed Control Unlimited, in which he uses “selected and specific” herbicides to control unwanted plants, mostly for the restoration of wildlife habitats. He started taking a 35-millimeter camera with him while he worked, and began taking up-close photos of wildflowers, insects and landscapes.

Atwater began using high-end digital cameras around 2004, which enabled him for the first time to accurately capture the motion of ducks in flight, the retreiver dogs and all of the details of nature.

“I’m a duck hunter, so I’ve always had retrievers, but I had never thought about taking photos professionally,” said Atwater, who credits his wife, Shannon, for noticing his enjoyment and skill related to taking pictures of hunting dogs. “I’ve always believed that you should just shoot pictures of what you see and what you like. I’m fortunate that my photos seem to have struck a chord with people in the outdoors and hunting world.”

Atwater’s photos are successful enough that he now splits his time between his weed-control business and taking photos. He is regularly commissioned to take photos of hunting dogs, at private kennels and as they compete at field trials.

“It’s an excitement and a thrill to do what I do,” said Atwater, who estimates he has taken hundreds of thousands of pictures in his career. “It’s almost like getting to hunt year round. I love when the dogs get out there chasing birds. They have this intensity and drive — they know what they were put on earth for and that’s what’s special to see.”

Mark has three retreivers himself, a yellow lab and two field-bred golden retrievers with darker, redder coats than a typical dog of their breed. A photo of one of them, Yeti, will be featured on the cover of an upcoming issue of Retreiver Journal magazine. Atwater has also taken cover photos for Gun Dog, Labs and Shooting Sportsman magazines, as well as publications produced by the Department of Natural Resources in the states of Lousiana, South Carolina and Illinois. He has had numerous images published in the widely-distributed Ducks Unlimited magazine, but hasn’t made the cover quite yet.

Ironically, a time of illness may have helped strengthen Atwater’s focus on what he does. Several years ago, he was stricken with the West Nile Virus and was largely bedridden.

“I could get up for a short time every day and I’d use what energy I had to go out in the yard and just take pictures of things like dragonflies or plants,” Atwater said. “I developed this heightened awareness of the things around me. I enjoy both the small and large aspects of natural life — whatever’s pretty and I can get close to.

“People often compliment me on my photos and I respond by reminding them that I didn’t make the stuff I take pictures of — God did. There is something perfect  about how everything in nature fits together. We don’t control nature, we are a part of it.”

Despite his success, Atwater is modest about what he does, and encourages aspiring photographers to hone their craft while enjoying themselves. He hosts beginners’ photography lessons in various settings and a more advanced nature photography workshop on a friend’s property in Seminole County.

“I immerse students in a beautiful location and my goal is to help them take their photos to the next level with the equipment they have,” he said. “I teach them how to control their camera to obtain predictable images, to capture exactly what they see with their eyes.”

Atwater’s website, where his portfolio is maintained and images are available for sale, is upclosephoto.com. His email is upclosephoto@windstream.net and his telephone number is (229) 524-6187.

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